Posts Tagged ‘Filipino art’
Study of 3 Thermos Flasks (1991/2), Faizal Fadil. Included in Intersecting Histories. Image courtesy of Postcolonial Web.
The inaugural show at the newly revived Gallery of the School of Art, Design and Media at NTU is Intersecting Histories: Contemporary turns in Southeast Asian art.
An exhibition of postwar Southeast Asian art ? Okay, pretty interesting.
One curated by T. K. Sabapathy ? I’m there.
I’m still trying to make up my mind about the show, but in the meantime, the art reviewer for The Straits Times had a couple of pretty interesting opinions about it. In response, a pal – newly befriended, through sheer serendipity – had a response to her piece. Both review and rejoinder are reproduced below.
(Full disclosure: Letter-writer Yvonne Low, a PhD candidate in the Dept. of Art History & Theory at the Uni. of Sydney, is currently researching female artists of Singapore and Indonesia. She is also the author of various articles on SE Asian art, one of which is included in the catalogue for the present show.)
Review, Huang Lijie
History that is skimpy on details
(Huang Lijie, 9 October 2012)
NTU’s exhibition on the turning points in the region’s contemporary art offers little illumination on its choices
The Nanyang Technological University recently announced its ambition to be a major player in South-east Asia’s burgeoning arts scene at the re- opening of its gallery and launch of a new exhibition.
The renovated School of Art, Design and Media gallery was inaugurated with the show, Intersecting Histories. The exhibition sets out to spotlight works of art that mark turning points in the rise and development of contemporary art in the region. The curator is well-known art historian T.K. Sabapathy.
It features 28 artists and 37 works, spanning four decades to the present, from collections such as the Singapore Art Museum and National University of Singapore Museum.
The aspiration of the university and curator to participate in the writing of contemporary art history through the show befits their callings. The university will run the Centre for Contemporary Art, which opens next year at Gillman Barracks and aims to be a world- renowned centre for art residency, research and exhibition. Mr Sabapathy, meanwhile, is co-chair of the advisory committee for the programme at next year’s Singapore Biennale.
Such clarity of vision on ambition, however, is not always evident in the show.
It opens purposefully with works by five artists that date from the 1970s but exude a remarkable sense of the here-and-now in form and content.
It includes Cheo Chai Hiang’s assembly of a found piece of log and a hinged wooden washing board that swings open to reveal in red the repeated phrase, “and miles to go before I sleep”. There is also Redza Piyadasa’s tall coffin-shaped box painted with the Malaysian flag and mirrored on the floor, and Jim Supangkat’s bust of a legendary Javanese queen placed on a plinth with the drawing of a naked female torso and a lower body clad in unzipped jeans that exposes pubic hair.
The curator asserts in the wall text that the works, which also include a painting by Benedicto Cabrera and five photo-etchings by Sulaiman Esa, show qualities of nascent contemporary art practice in South-east Asia.
Yet the reason they qualify as icons and why they were picked can be gleaned only from two oblique sentences in the text. The absence of labels for individual works that explain why they are each pivotal in contemporary art history does the show no favour.
The diligent viewer, though, will be rewarded if he reads the curator’s 32-page essay in the show’s catalogue, which is being printed. The curator posits the works as hallmarks because they are by artists who either individually or as part of a collective, voiced early-on at crucial moments the need for art to stop being a purely aesthetic object defined by rigid artistic principles. The works were also made using alternative mediums and techniques, and they engaged critically with the milieu of the times, traits that distinguish it from previous art.
Works embodying these contemporary concerns are seen in a section focusing on the female body. Nindityo Adipurnomo’s wooden sculptures of traditional hair pieces worn by Javanese women as status symbols open up like jewellery boxes with mirrors under the lids to reveal an assemblage of icons that critique social obsession with sex, superstition and intoxication.
This invitation to peek and ponder is echoed in the mirrors of nearby works by Amanda Heng and Julie Lluch. The gaze that meets Lluch’s wearied, naked female sculpture, however, is introspective while Heng’s mirror on a table under a pair of red divination blocks and dish cover has a more gender-charged view.
This dynamic interplay between works continues in an open-ended segment, which the wall text proposes, explores various themes including the human figure as a symbol of a person’s pained inner psyche and global strife.
A more satisfying approach perhaps, might be to see the works as a myriad of responses to structures of power such as in politics, the art canon and personal desires. This would place Donna Ong’s sublime dioramas in serendipitous conversation with Bayu Utomo Radjikin’s fierce metal scrap warrior. In Ong’s piece, personal desires succumb to fantastical landscapes while Bayu’s sculpture stoicly resists the siege of Westernisation on indigenous identity.
Resonance persists in a standalone section of the gallery, which looks at how artists such as Niranjan Rajah and Ho Tzu Nyen become power brokers through narratives on art and history in their video works.
These intersecting discourses among the many works, which overcrowd the main gallery, highlight ideas in contemporary art. They also show how contemporary art, which is rooted in history, continually redefines itself in creative ways to respond to the present. But it offers little illumination on why themes raised, such as the female body, are pivotal to the development of contemporary art in the region and why the other works, besides those in the opening section, mark critical moments in contemporary art.
The scant wall texts are mum and the essay is not explicit. It states the significance of some works in the context of their creation, exhibition and reception but this still stops short of articulating why or how the works marked decisive changes in the history of contemporary art. The shortcoming is reinforced by the fact that at least seven works in this show have appeared in recent contemporary shows at the Singapore Art Museum such as Classic Contemporary, Negotiating Home, History And Nation, and Telah Terbit (Out Now), which examine themes in contemporary art and the history of the practice; this exhibition did not cast the works in a new light.
Response, Yvonne Low
A response to review, “History that is skimpy on details”
(Yvonne Low, 17 November 2012)
The following article is written in response to Huang Lijie’s review of the exhibition, Intersecting histories: Contemporary turns in Southeast Asian art, held at ADM Gallery, Nanyang Technological University, which was published on 9 October 2012 in the Life! Arts section, The Straits Times.
I read with genuine surprise at the author’s appraisal of the exhibition that opened at the School of Art, Design and Media gallery on 27 September 2012 and guest curated by art historian, T.K. Sabapathy. In her write-up, Huang provided a well-composed and critical description of the exhibition, including an interesting reading of selected works. Her main contention, however, was the lack of clarity in the exhibition’s curatorial design, specifically that there were inadequate content within the signposts – by way of wall-text and labels – to explain why the selected works “qualify as icons and why they were picked” and “why they are each pivotal in contemporary art history”. Though the author referred to the curatorial essay and subsequently proceeded to provide the reasons for the works’ selection as discerned from the text, she insisted that even the essay “is not explicit”:
It states the significance of some works in the context of their creation, exhibition and reception but this still stops short of articulating why and how the works marked decisive changes in the history of contemporary art. The shortcoming is reinforced by the fact that at least seven works in this show have appeared in recent contemporary shows at the Singapore Art Museum, such as Classic Contemporary, Negotiating Home, History and Nation, and Telah Terbit (Out Now), which examine themes in contemporary art and the history of the practice; this exhibition did not cast the works in a new light.
My encounter with the exhibition turned out to be quite different from the author’s – unsurprisingly, one might say, given my somewhat privileged position where I have not only contributed an essay to the exhibition catalogue discussing three of the works on display but also had several opportunities to speak with the curator when the exhibition was still being developed. That said, such “privileges” could hardly have robbed me of my ability to look at the exhibition in its entirety with all the works installed as they are now and to think for myself what to make of it all.
It is quite difficult to not consider the works in a new light given that no two exhibition can be the same; every show will be different in intent if not in configuration. It matters not if seven or seventeen of the works had in fact been shown elsewhere, but it is of how they have been exhibited in relation to other works and how they can be read in the given contexts that should matter.
Even on the outset, it is clear – without needing to read the exhibition catalogue – that this exhibition has a strong pedagogical tenor that undoubtedly sets it apart from all preceding exhibitions on Southeast Asian contemporary art. The exhibition is conceived as a project within an academic institution – a platform, far more conducive than the museum, to encourage if not foster deep and critical thinking on, especially those things that are “problematic”. The limitations of the recently renovated ADM gallery – to hold and show the scale and scope desired of a subject as expansive as Southeast Asian contemporary art – were plain to see. Huang was right about the overcrowded state of the main gallery; what she overlooked was the valiant effort that went in working with the limitations of the gallery and other institutional constraints (the works are afterall borrowed) to give to the audience as inclusive a selection as possible – or at least enough of a selection to generate some meaningful discussion and exploration of the theme and subject “intersecting histories”.
With the exception of two new site-specific creations by Koh Nguang How and Tang Da Wu (works that too were based on previous artworks), all the works on show have in some form or another been exhibited before in the last 40 years in Singapore or elsewhere in the region. Many of them acquired seminal status when they were collected by prominent institutions (and sometimes even before they were collected); these works have been rarified throughout history and in the course of their exhibition and re-exhibition. Yet, rarely have their consecration been subjected to study or examination in this manner.
The point here was precisely to explore the works’ significance and histories – this includes its exhibition history – in the context of Southeast Asian art and art historiography. The sub-themes (the explication of the human form as one example) – some of which Huang herself has shrewdly identified – reflect the investigative concerns that are deeply rooted in the discipline of art history. What the exhibition has shown is that by employing interpretive models (iconography, the study of technique and media, history etc), one may still arrive at multiple, intersecting and insightful perspectives of the contemporary.
Whether this opportunity can be fully appreciated by the Singaporean public is itself a separate issue altogether. If the exhibition has not cast new light to the works, then it would only be because the viewers have chosen to stay in the dark.
The cab ride there, which included two spins down the length of Jalan Cempaka and a couple of mini-tours of the surrounding housing estates, cost me 30 RM. Matching up addresses and topographical reality can be a hazardous business in Kuala Lumpur.
Well worth it though, all things considered.
The House of Matahati, which evolved out of the Matahati collective founded by a group of young Malaysian artists in the late ’80s, is definitely one of the highlights on the KL art circuit (the latter, unfortunately, a rather nondescript one). Its current offering, Drawing a Distance: Drawings from 3 cities, boasts quite a few gems: works from Filipino Victor Balanon’s Dream of the Nameless Hundred series; Indonesian Maryanto’s etchings on photographic paper; Nurrachmat Widyasena’s Each One Was a Hero; Malaysian Lim Keh Soon’s whimsical, macabre little figures, in the spirit of Edward Gorey’s Gashlycrumb Tinies perhaps.
Pictures below; enjoy.
Works by Poodien. [left] Brave Old World: Raya Untuk Ravana (2012), charcoal, acrylic & ink on canvas. [right] Brave Old World: Langkapuri Yang Lain, Melarut ufuk, Berpasak Alih (2012), shadow puppet & charcoal on paper.
Local art concern, Artesan Gallery + Studio, has gleaming, pristine new digs at the Raffles Hotel.
And I do mean gleaming.
Not that their Bukit Timah home was lacking — if anything, the space was both charming and cozy — but in a sense the present move really marks an arrival of sorts.
The inaugural show is a solo presentation of Filipino artist Roldan “Manok” Ventura‘s latest work.
First, anonymity as a regulatory force, socio-political instrumentalism at its bluntest: “ … an effect of actions taken against a subject by one invested with greater authority or power. This is anonymity as something done to the subject, acts that take what is most recognizable or objectionable about the subject and diffuse or nullify those parts.”
Now, anonymity as a radical response, a re-direction of the otherwise negational act of erasure: “What I am suggesting in this exhibition is a counter possibility, that when faced with this force the subject as glimpsed in this exhibition could take on that anonymity toward altogether different ends. When the anonymity maintains the trace of individuality rather than erase it, for one, or when anonymity is a sign that the subject is not completely whole or human, and therefore not quite within reach of any attempts to normalize it.”
That’s local artist Jason Wee, who curated Subject Shall Remain Anonymous, on his theme of choice. It’s a suasive thesis. The resonances here are varied and urgent: the revelation of intersecting power structures; the expression of subalternity (especially immediate within the context of Southeast Asia, where autocratic regimes of one sort or another are the norm rather than the exception); the possibilities of aesthetic resistance. The title, as a matter of fact, pretty much sums it up. The use of the imperative – the voice of decree – establishes a differential of authority between speaker and audience, and the omission of an article, whether definite or indefinite, functions as a grammatical elision invoking the contingent status of the “subject”. Interposed, then,between the denial of individual agency by oligarchic systems, and the appropriation of such gestures as, antithetically, acts of ownership and self-determination, are the multifarious strategies serving to occlude the artistic object, the effacement, abstraction, deracination, dispersal, withdrawal, material inflection and iconographic negotiation shrouding it in layers of eloquent hidden-ness.
Perhaps the most direct measure here of anonymity and its modalities is the distance from naturalistic representations of the human body – i.e. how the somatic complex, as the consequence of long-held traditions and discourses of verisimilar portraiture, is simultaneously evoked and erased. Take Maya Munoz’s paintings (above, top), for instance: incognito personalities posed against equally unrecognizable backdrops, both figure and ground constituted by trickles, streaks, blotches, and whirling eddies of paint, the legibility of their subject matter receding beneath the barrage of conspicuous mark-making. Or Jeremy Sharma’s rather derivative contributions (above, bottom). While likewise appropriating the idiom of gestural abstraction, their surfaces submitted to an imbroglio of conspicuous brushstrokes and bleeding drips (de Kooning, anyone?), these works extend the trope of anonymity by a doubled act of obfuscation: the subjects, an astronaut and a racer, are individuals masked – literally – by their respective occupations, any suggestion of subjectivity buried by livery, equipment, signs of corporate sponsorship. The person inhabiting the suit is removed twice over from the spectator’s gaze, rendered ambivalent by both attribute (what they wear) and style (how they’re depicted).
Portraiture is often adduced as that most iconic of signs (along with photography, though not without howls of protest in the latter’s case), a system of corporeal representation foregrounding physical and social semblance – i.e. likeness. C. S. Peirce’s semiotic triad of icon-index-symbol has been discussed elsewhere on the pages of this blog, but just by way of a quick recap: the iconic sign-type is largely premised on verisimilitude, the degree of proximity to its real-life referent. Of the icon, Peirce had this to say: “Most icons, if not all, are likenesses of their objects.” Or: “… firstly, Likenesses, or, as I prefer to say, Icons, which serve to represent their objects only in so far as they resemble them in themselves …” (Qtd. in T. L. Short, Peirce’s Theory of Signs [Cambridge Uni. Press, 2007].) He would go on to qualify this definition – and categorize three different sorts of icons – but more on that later. The point here is, at its most basic (and reductive), Peircean iconicity is established on similitude.
The second sign-type, the index, is predicated on existential contiguities between sign and object. As commonly understood by art historians, the painterly gesture, qua index, is a trace of the artist’s hand that emphasizes its own processual or constitutive nature, rather than being an image grounded in naturalism (unlike the index). Elsewhere, Rosalind Krauss has said of the index: “As distinct from symbols, indexes establish their meaning along the axis of a physical relationship to their referents. They are the marks or traces of a particular cause, and that cause is the thing to which they refer, the object they signify. Into the category of the index, we would place physical traces (like footprints), medical symptoms, or the actual referents … Cast shadows could also serve as the indexical signs of objects …” (Krauss, “Notes on the Index: Part 1” in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths [MIT Press, 1986].) As signs that exist “along the axis of a physical relationship”, indices are marks (like footprints) that act as material indicators of their origins (the foot that made it). One of the primary mechanisms of the semiotic process here, then – Peirce identified several more – is that of cause and effect.
Harold Rosenberg, c. 1950. Image from Archives of American Art.
Clement Greenberg, in 1978. Image from this UW-Milwaukee site.
It is in the break between the iconic (representational mimesis) and the indexical (a-referential action-ism) that the works of Munoz and Sharma locate their various configurations of dis-identification. As Wee notes, anonymity, as a response to the depredations of hegemonic networks rather than being a mere effect of said incursions, operates most cogently when it “maintains the trace of individuality rather than [completely] eras-[ing] it.” Put another way: these paintings of rubbed-out individuals, clad in everyday attire like jeans or veiled behind helmets and buried in hi-tech gear, may seem to proscribe the sort of subjective, iconic specificity afforded by realist portraiture, the departure from verisimilitude dovetailing with notions of social marginalization. Yet the sort of pictorial delineations here function also in the way of indexicality: while retaining the broad contours of figural description, they also employ the sort of vigorous, assertive, dynamic brushwork associated with action painting.* Or, in Harold Rosenberg’s words: “The innovation of Action Painting was to dispense with the representation of the state in favor of enacting it in physical movement. The action on the canvas became its own representation.” (Italics mine.) The self-evident, self-defining gestures of the Abstract Expressionists – to use the label appropriated by Greenberg, who, famously, disagreed with Rosenberg’s characterization – channeled by the present paintings belie the understanding of facelessness as powerlessness, anonymity as anomie. Quite simply, the energy and the authority conveyed by the brushstrokes (as indexical signs) contradict the impression of invisibility (in the iconic register), restoring to the otherwise obliterated, undistinguished subject on the surface of the canvas a sense of puissance.
* It’s perhaps not uninteresting that, apropos of artists working in the year 2012, explicatory recourse is still being had to paradigms established 60 years ago. (Rosenberg’s piece, “The American Action Painters”, was first published in 1952.) Failure of critical response (mine), or artistic imagination (theirs) ?
Yet, even within the conceptual framework of the show – of anonymity as criticality – works like Munoz’s and Sharma’s seem … the least compelling.
The interruption of a mimetic pictorial syntax by the sort of gestural inflections discussed above are utilized to similar effect by various other pieces as well: Mella Jaarsma’s melding of synthetic Cubist forms and Orientalist motifs (Protectors of Candi Suku III; above, top); Ahmad Zakii Anwar’s depiction of a man’s back, the enclosing space thick with a mesh of charcoal pencil-lines (Reclining Figure #13; above, middle); the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t faces of Vincent Leow’s figures (above, bottom). Deviating from the tropes of iconic representationalism seems the most straightforward process of constituting the anonymous – and, by dint of that fact, the most unexciting as well. If anything, those inclusions here which lend themselves less immediately to claims of visual anonymity offer precisely the richest examples of that very proposition. The show, in fact, opens with a classic instance of traditional portraiture, a painting of a nameless young woman (below, top) being the first work in the gallery the viewer encounters:
This exhibition started with a mystery. The gallerist Tolla Sloane showed me a painting by Doris Duke, a commercial portraitist who worked in Malaya and died in Singapore in 1967, who was also Tolla’s grandmother. The portrait ‘Girl in Pink’ was finished in 1955 for an exhibition for the Women Artists of Malaya group, which included Georgette Chen among others. The Malay girl in the painting was not named in any of the exhibition documents in Tolla’s possession, and though we suspected that some of the other artists in that exhibition may have painted the same teenage model, we could not find her likeness elsewhere, at least not in what we saw of Chen’s and her contemporaries’ paintings from those years. She remained a nameless cipher for the ambitions of others …
(Jason Wee, “Subject Shall Remain Anonymous”, in the accompanying catalogue.)
Duke’s Girl in Pink, at first glance, is that which many of its fellows in the show are not: an expressive, suggestive depiction of an individual, rendered with the specificity of detail appropriate to the work of a professional portrait painter ? (Which Duke was, according to the brief bio in the exhibition booklet.) The figure’s softly-limned features, the coy, downcast gaze and ever-so-slightly parted lips; her quaint braids, and the pink ribbons, and the wispy peach-hued blouse with its snow-white collar; the edge of a painting behind her set into an edge of the painting – the cumulative effect is one of class and culture, gentle breeding and gracious manners. So much for the immediately expressive. What the painting suggests, while less discernable, is no less interesting nor significant: a girl of her race and (presumably) religion in 1950s Malaya – the fledgling federation then a mere two years away from full independence – with uncovered head and open neck, sitting for a portrait. The question, of course, is one of wider social mores, of the particular historico-geographical moment in which the image is moored: did Malay-Muslim girls of her age and class, in 1955, wear these things, do these things ? If it’s fair to assume that they generally did not, what sort of inferences may be drawn about the sitter ? Does the deliberate aura of refinement and breeding – of a certain socio-economic class and its prerogatives, in other words – serve to set her apart in more ways than one, and what, if anything, does that say about social differentiation and the practice of Islam in the Merdeka era ?
Grand-sounding claims. The litany of issues above, though, ultimately fails to take into account a crucial point: whether the painting was a commissioned portrait, or posed for by a hired model (as Wee suggests). And it is in that sense, of a fundamental ontological instability, that the girl in pink remains as much an enigma to us as, say, Munoz’s obscured bodies. The portrait may situate itself within a discourse of representational image-making, of pictures as signs that resemble their real-world referents, but, imbricated as it is within a web of contextual uncertainties, the unanswered questions of just who the girl was, and the circumstances of Duke’s painting of her, render the work a deracinated likeness of no one, a signifier of anonymity rather than identity. To return to the idea of the icon: Peirce would go on qualified the concept in a more specific fashion, noting that “An icon is a sign which would possess the character which renders it significant, even though its object had no existence; such as a lead-pencil streak as representing a geometrical line.” (Qtd. in T. L. Short, Peirce’s Theory of Signs [Cambridge Uni. Press, 2007].) In other words, likeness, as it concerns iconicity, is not predicated on actual existence; rather, the resemblance may relate to completely imaginary objects or to ideas (e.g. geometry) instead. An icon, then, may operate along the lines of visual similitude without gesturing at any particular object existing in reality – as, of course, Duke’s girl in pink does here, a nomadic sign anchored to an indeterminate, evacuated entity.
I like the idea of recuperating the anonymous underside of portraiture – itself a kind of intellectual agency. The issue perhaps becomes particularly acute at the intersection of History (with the capital ‘H’) and subjectivity, as is the case here. I think T. J. Clark put it best: “Class is a name, I take it, for that complex and determinate place we are given in the social body; it is the name for everything which signifies that a certain history lives us, lends us our individuality.” (Italics mine; see The Painting of Modern Life [Knopf, 1985].)
Ang Sookoon’s Love is like a chunk of gold (below, bottom), the sole sculptural piece included in the show, makes for a wonderfully apropos note on which to end. The artist introduced a solution of phosphoric acid into a loaf of bread, causing crystals to sprout, and then encased the entire object in resin. The final product looks rather like a mutant cephalopod.
It just sits in its little plastic case, coolly, calmly, self-possessed; it is also the one work here which simply jettisons any form of reference to the human body at all. Non-existence – the most radical form of anonymity ?
Here is scholar of the sartorial, Anne Hollander, on the material existence of clothes:
Dress has not only no social but also no significant aesthetic existence unless it is actually being worn. Western sartorial relics on display simply do not have the artistic status of antique vases and cabinets. Half their beauty is obviously missing. This is true not just if they are displayed unworn, but always, simply because they are not seen completing the unique and conscious selves of their owners …… Concepts of design and feats of workmanship survive, along with indications of social attitudes, economic conditions, and so on. But a vase in a museum has a completeness to offer the eye that a dress never has, though both may be breathtakingly made according to artistic standards of equal altitude.
(From Hollander’s classic study, Seeing Through Clothes.)
Unworn clothing, or dress, then, as an inert physicality, un-activated as social or aesthetic fact by the animating force of a body.
Now these – at the SAM’s latest offering, The Collectors Show: Chimera - bodies missing, effaced, obscured, abstracted:
First, Filipino artist Patricia Eustaquio’s Psychogenic Fugue (below), on loan from collector Marcel Crespo (son of former Filipino Congressman, Mark Jimenez). A piano cover, an expanse of cream-coloured lace, is set over a missing piano, its evacuated, vacant interior illuminated by several spotlights. The armature of the piece is provided by the simple means of a hardened thermoplastic resin, which moulds the fabric from beneath into a phantasmal non-presence – evoked, named, but always already displaced. As the label observes: “Delicate in detail and haunting in its hollowness, this ghostly shroud calls attention to its absent object, poignantly emphasising its loss.”
Another contribution by a Filipino artist: Yasmin Sison’s Orange Madonna (below), from the collection of one Dr. George Soo. The painting’s central figures are, literally, dis-figured. The minor iconographic tradition of the Virgin and Holy Infant in a grove of orange trees – one of the more famous examples of which remains Cima de Conegliano’s late 15th century treatment of the subject – is here given an update by the clearly visible contemporary wear. More to the point, however, is the salient effacement of the figures, the painted surface where their faces should be reduced to a muddied soup of chaotic brushstrokes and chromatic confusion, explicitly negating the dimensions of mimesis and iconicity.
The title of Yayoi Kusama’s installation, Statue of Venus Obliterated by Infinity Nets 2/10 (below), speaks for itself. Courtesy of Lito and Kim Camacho, a replica of the Venus de Milo is set against a flat background, both rendered in Kusama’s trademark “infinity nets” (a pattern of reiterated dots), binding object and setting in a virtually indistinguishable homogeneity. To quote theorist Roger Caillois on what he termed “legendary psychasthenia”, or the phenomenon of a subject psychologically identifying with or becoming absorbed into a physical space:
It is with represented space that the drama becomes specific, since the living creature, the organism, is no longer the origin of the coordinates, but one point among others; it is dispossessed of its privilege and literally no longer knows where to place itself …… The feeling of personality, considered as the organism’s feeling of distinction from its surroundings, of the connection between consciousness and a particular point in space, cannot fail under these circumstances to be seriously undermined; one then enters into the psychology of psychasthenia, and more specifically legendary psychasthenia, if we agree to use this name for the disturbance in the above relations between personality and space.
(Qtd. in Anthony Vidler’s The Architectural Uncanny.)
The body is here, the artist flatly states, obliterated, the object visually subsumed as an image of the subject in a state of destabilizing psycho-spatial collapse.
Finally, Indonesian Entang Wiharso’s The Unspeakable Victim – The Story Behind Superhero and Black Goat Colony (#3) (below), from the collection of Hugh Young. The work is one in a series of similar metal-plate sculptures, resembling, in their broad figural contours, paper cutouts, or the cast shadows of wayang kulit puppets. The rather obscure narratives conjured by the artist aren’t the point here; what is apropos is the evocation of the wayang: “… you have to understand the wayang – the scared shadow play … Their shadows are souls, and the screen is heaven. You must watch the shadows, not the puppets.” (A quote from Peter Weir’s 1982 film, The Year of Living Dangerously, based on C. J. Koch’s novel of the same name.) Orientalist melodrama aside, the wayang in its performative dimension indeed provides a ready analogue for the abstracted corporeal complex as Wiharso envisions it. The appropriation of the silhouette as a formal strategy, rather than the puppets themselves, in all their intricate detail, suggests a double dislocation here: the shadow as a Platonic un-reality, a cave of fleeting illusions, which the art of the wayang encodes into its very praxis; and Wiharso’s spare, bare forms, the body submitted to a specific mode of erasure.
A return to where we started from: Hollander’s claim that the unworn dress is an incomplete prosthesis of the wearer. If that notion may be analogized to accommodate the artwork-collector complex – the effaced body, so prevalent here, as an intimation of the missing, crucial, animating force that supposedly provides the conceptual glue which brings together the various strands of contemporary art praxis on display, or, in other words, the individual collector and the determining aesthetics of particular collections and tastes – then the shortcomings of the show become glaringly obvious, “simply because”, as Hollander puts it, “they are not seen completing the unique and conscious selves of their owners.”
After all, Chimera bills itself as “a tribute to the art patrons of today, the exhibition offers an insight into the breadth and richness of private art collections, introducing visitors to the personal visions and passions that shape them.”
Where, then, are these ‘personal visions and passions”, beyond the parade of names that mean little to general art-viewing public – Crespo, Soo, Camacho, Young, among so many others that soon begin to blur one into another ? Those function here simply as a placeholder for the act of semantic truancy, the organizing principle claimed but, for all effective purpose, occluded. Or to reiterate the abovementioned – “evoked, named, but always already displaced.”
The artwork as static and inert as an article of dress removed from the absent anatomy; the gesture of the hollowed-out body as an analogue of that missing element which serves as the ersatz foundation of the exhibition, a presence alluded to but ceaselessly deferred – the Collector.
It was all so .. deracinated.
A tribute of sorts this show certainly is, but what to ? The power of individual collectors possessed of the necessary resources ? The readiness of an institution to genuflect ? The ingenuity of the curator ? The cosy network of connections which sutures the art industry and the socio-economic elite ? Or perhaps the creed of convenience, the exhibition as an easy, fail-safe showcase of the snazziest examplars of contemporary Asian art, a blatantly transparent attempt to wow both collector and peasant alike, the latter especially who should be grateful for the opportunity to view such remarkable pieces accessible otherwise only to the privilege of (superfluous) capital and private property.
Consider me grateful.
Aren’t these just f*cking amazing ?
These drawings are the latest from Filipino artist Victor Balanon.
Balanon had a solo show at the Artesan Gallery (run by the charming Roberta Dans) in Singapore last year, which is where I met him. His practice is informed by a keen interest in film – clearly – and the Italians in particular. (We bonded over a mutual love for Antonioni.)
Just wishing all my readers a great new year.
My one resolution for 2012 ? – Be nicer to people who deserve it …… and less tolerant of the ones who don’t.
The oil-on-matboard painting above by Filipino artist Faith Te; her blog may be found here.
Just back from the APB Prize announcements.
The winner of the grand prize and the 45 thousand big ones ? – Filipino artist Rodel Tapaya’s Baston Ni Kabunian, Bilang Pero Di Mabilang (Cane Of Kabunian, Numbered But Cannot Be Counted).
My reaction superimposed on the painting, below.
More to come – once my nausea subsides.
It’s yesterday once more.
Ahmad Mashadi, director of the NUS Museum, has a piece out in the latest issue of Third Text, which embeds certain emergent art practices of the 1970s in their historical moment. The ’60s and ’70 were turbulent times for SE Asia in general, the anti-colonialist movement sweeping the region irresistibly towards angry, uneasy independence for many of its fledgling nation-states, and Mashadi seeks to realign art historical and socio-political narratives. While this piece is essentially something of a rehash of his earlier essay for the Telah Terbit catalogue, it’s still nonetheless a fascinating read — if only because there isn’t very much like it out there.
Shoobie doo lang lang …
A shoutout to JW for the link !
FRAMING THE 1970s
This article attempts to shed light on the critical artistic practices taking place in Southeast Asia during the 1970s. The ﬁrst part outlines the contexts of social and political transformation in the region within which developments in prevailing artistic practices and conventions took place. The tenor or intensity of such conditions varied across locations, yet they broadly informed the emergence of artistic discourses marked by newer attitudes towards the role of artists and art, as well as the constitution, the materiality of art, and the considered references made to society and notions of publicness.
Towards this end, we may consider two historical premises, both of which are critical in understanding ‘why Southeast Asia in the 1970s?’. First, Southeast Asia might be perceived as a set of emerging nations whose domestic social, economic and political concerns often appear vexing and tumultuous, yet nevertheless intersect with prevailing discourses of international politics, in particular with Cold War ideologies. The project of decolonisation also brought into play rhetoric intended to exemplify the independent nation-state and its destiny. Such rhetoric has greatly, if not fundamentally, affected the formation and reception of culture, history and self-perception in the region. Second, artistic developments in Southeast Asia from the 1950s on were affected by an increased access to Euro-American artistic models and an eventual shift towards ‘internationalism’, expressed through the pervasiveness and institutionalisation of abstraction and formalism as dominant modes of expression. The institutionalisation of these modes of depiction was both an indication of the extent to which they were celebrated as universal languages enabling cross-border interactions and an expression of progress that could be shaped according to the will of a given state.
As a practice marked by criticality and reﬂexivity, the contemporary locates itself within these horizontal-synchronic references to the present and social contexts, and the vertical-diachronic autonomy of artistic discourse as it unfolds over time. In order to explore the potential of such readings, the second part of this article will provide a chronological description of key developments during the 1970s in Southeast Asia, a time when the synchronic and the diachronic came together in a highly explosive way.
The Malaysian artist Redza Piyadasa stencilled these words onto an otherwise empty plinth in 1976: ‘This is a statement about form.’ In doing so, he attempted to bring into focus the need to rethink ways of perceiving art and its mediatory element, the object. The latter, rendered absent, no longer functioned as a carrier of intrinsic meanings or value, therefore undermining the absoluteness of aesthetic and critical judgements. Pablo Baen Santos paints an image of the New Christ (1980), a blue-collar common man cruciﬁed on a dollar sign, with an American ﬂag waving in the background. It is ﬁgurative, conceived to communicate effectively and to connect emotively to the ongoing economic and political struggles in the Philippines. Decidedly leftist in its politics, the work is informed by anti-capitalistic and anti-American sentiments. If these works are to provide a cursory snapshot of contemporary practices in Southeast Asia during the 1970s, then such practices characterised two broad approaches – conceptualism and statement-making – as well as realism and forms of activism. However, these approaches should not be seen as mutually exclusive, but instead as trajectories founded upon shared contextual currents.
The outcome may be described in relation to the emergence of the ‘aesthetics of rejection’ and ‘aesthetics of empathy’. It is not a bifurcation of artistic trajectories, but rather an intertwined proposition of the contemporary. Criticality, conceptualisms and activism describe these interests, best expressed by David C Medalla in 1975. When asked by interviewer Cid Reyes what he wanted Philippine artists to ‘rebel against’, Medalla stated:
Well, against authority. One should not just accept authority in anything, least of all in art. I don’t mean one should rebel merely for the sake of rebellion: that will be absurd. That is to say, only after having examined reality can one accept certain fundamental concepts. Our young artists should immerse themselves in the lives of the people. They must be thoroughly critical, not only of what is currently fashionable but also of all those artistic forms they are adapting from abroad. They should learn to integrate themselves with the needs of the masses of the people. I think it can be done. 1
These interests are signiﬁcant and broad ranging, not only in their relevance to art from the Philippines, but also to our discussion on contemporary art in Southeast Asia. They may be explored along several fronts: as critical responses to conventions and modes of ‘internationalism’; through questions pertaining to institutions and institutionalisation of art; and through regional and national political developments. As a cultural projection of nation, earlier modern developments as expressed through abstraction in the 1950s and 1960s attempted to reﬂect notions of national ‘progressiveness’ by displacing the conservatism of earlier styles. In turn, such developments sought to capitalise on the language of abstraction in order to facilitate international engagements. The idea of international fraternity often played itself out through biennales and other large-scale, recurring international arts events. Relentlessly, according to Purita Kalaw-Ledesma, founder of the Art Association of the Philippines in 1948, the drive towards internationalism and international recognition:
. . . took the form of a desire to compete. . . to crash the international scene, it was believed that one had to paint in the international style. The feeling grew that the Filipino artist was as good as anyone.2
Some of the many artists who participated in international events included Vicente Manansala and Nena Saguil (Spanish-American Biennale, Cuba, 1958), Napoleo´ n Abueva and Jose´ Joya (Venice Biennale, 1962) and Arturo Luz, Lee Aguinaldo (Sa˜o Paulo Biennale, 1971). These participations were undertaken at considerable cost and effort, yet as Kalaw-Ledesma recalled, ‘our entries were lost in the sea of similar works, each working in the same school of abstract thought’.3
Disappointed by the outcome of the Sa˜o Paulo participation, Arturo Luz lamented:
. . . in my opinion the Bienal de Sa˜o Paulo is a showplace for the big nations determined to gain prestige and rather expensive exercise for the small participating nations. . . My own guess is that international recognition will come if we win an award or send an exhibition which is truly original and outstanding by international standards.4
Nevertheless, the trend towards abstraction and formalism continued. Mediated by the various searches for national and cultural identities, this trend was inﬂected by the local through references to indigenous motifs and philosophical frames. Declared a universalist language, abstraction became subject to institutional appropriation and reiﬁcation and thus to critique. In locating abstraction as part of the project of nation, Syed Ahmad Jamal claimed:
The Merdeka [Post-Independence Malaysian] artists of the ﬁfties and sixties subscribed mainly to the aesthetics of Abstract Expressionism. The immediacy and mystical quality of the mainstream art of the 1960s appealed particularly to the Malaysian temperament, sensitivity and cultural heritage.5
The statement projects an attempt to locate Malaysian art within the fraternity of the international. But the reference made to the ‘Malaysian temperament, sensitivity and cultural heritage’ makes clear the anxiety underwriting the problems of situating the abstract in Malaysia and resituating the same back into the global discourse, a process characterised by its inherent unevenness where Asian abstraction art was often regarded as ‘derivative’ by the hegemonic West. For contemporary artists during the 1970s, these contexts and contingencies provided points of introspection, opening new grounds for critique and generating new points of departure. On the one hand, considered references to ‘universalist Western’ perspectives that privileged notions of progression provided ground upon which to form discourses leading to a range of aesthetic investigations and developments, concomitant with the emerging regard for the sense of the self within the broadening sphere of the modern experience. On the other hand, the perceived uneven relationships underlying internationalist engagements coupled with speciﬁc and localised communitarian needs posed considerable challenges in catalysing theoretical and artistic developments. In Indonesia, the relatively open developments during the 1970s had been made possible by the fall of President Sukarno in 1966 and the subsequent removal of the Communists from the cultural landscape. A cultural manifesto known as Manikebu (Manifesto Kebudayaan), which was introduced in 1963 by a group of cultural activists arguing on behalf of freedom of artistic expression in contradistinction to the directed approaches of cultural productions of the past decade, was rejected by Sukarno and attacked by LEKRA (Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakyat), the Communist Party’s cultural arm, then closely tied to the Sukarno government. The inﬂuence of LEKRA diminished along with the displacement of the Sukarno government. A failed coup known as Gestapu took place on 30 September 1965 with the military targeting suspected Communists and leftists, often through the involvement of Islamic militias. Left-wing artists including writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer and painter Hendra Gunawan were imprisoned.
Tainted by his links to the Communists and implicated in several events associated with the attempted coup, President Sukarno eventually ceded his powers to Suharto who established a New Order government in 1966. The new president oversaw a series of policy changes including a more hospitable attitude towards the US. With the left-wing rhetoric of LEKRA removed from the cultural discourse of Indonesian art, and Sukarno’s spectacular fall from grace, the entire ediﬁce of Communist aesthetics imploded as well. The effects were immediately felt with the dissipation of the discourse between the Yogyakarta and Bandung schools. In its place arose a less polemical articulation of the introspective self and culture as mediated by formalism. Those harassed by the left during the late 1950s and early 1960s welcomed the opportunity to explore concerns relating to individual expression associated with high modernism. Indeed, the government-run Taman Ismail Marzuki (TIM) Art Center opened in 1968 with little incident. Although state-controlled, the Center provided a place for artistic practice relatively free from the undue inﬂuence of any one ideology. Aesthetic experimentation and formal references to indigenous cultures consequently ﬂourished in the Indonesian artworld. These kinds of sites and the gradual erosion of politics as a key concern for artists later gave rise to another group of practitioners eager to redeﬁne the trajectory of Indonesian art so that it more closely related to the country’s history and society.
In 1969, a year after the opening of TIM, the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) opened in Manila. Its construction, supported in part by the US, resulted in a building that initially hosted groups and shows from abroad. The visual arts initiatives offered an internationalist orientation focusing on high modernism and new experimental forms, including conceptual and performance art which were seen as extensions of an emerging Filipino modernity that seamlessly embraced a dynamic spirit inherent within regional and indigenous cultures. The early history of the CCP coincided with the increasing political tensions within the Philippines; in 1972, President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law and the establishment of a Bagong Lipunan (New Society), ostensibly in order to safeguard democracy and introduce ‘law and order’. The CCP positioned itself as an institution intended to promote criticality in artistic and curatorial practices connected to the practices of Roberto Chabet and Raymundo Albano as well as with their associates. Yet the Center’s links to the Marcos regime and the apparent exclusion of artists identiﬁed with the political opposition compelled many to view the CCP as merely a cultural extension of Marcos’s rule. The political opposition dubbed the CCP a monument to a morally bankrupt elite and throughout the 1970s the Center was approached by some artists as afoil against which to express resistance to the Marcos government. 6 A case in point is Kaisahan (Solidarity), led by Pablo Baen Santos, which initiated protests against the Marcos government and American patronage by incorporating strategies taken from realism and street art. The group issued a Declaration of Principles, which stressed the creation of nationalist art intended for the people and reﬂective of their aspirations.
Such art was to function as a means of communication, an imperative that extended to the production of banners and posters used in demonstrations and marches, as well as to political cartoons published in various popular media venues. Realism was deployed in order to critique the state’s patronage of the arts through such institutions as the CCP, which tended to favour abstraction and conceptual practices that for many appeared artiﬁcial, mannerist and overly indexical of international movements.
Across Southeast Asia, the end of the Second World War also meant the beginning of decolonisation, which proved to be a period of intense change and turmoil. Although the transfer of power from colonial rulers to emerging indigenous elites was relatively peaceful in the Philippines, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Malaya and Singapore, in Vietnam and Indonesia it was not. The 1960s and 1970s, when numerous transformative and tumultuous social and political shifts took place, complicated the picture further. This period of transformation coincided with the Cold War, a struggle that involved global politics of patronage as the US and USSR lent their support to particular political factions in those countries they hoped to inﬂuence. Instruments of diplomacy and foreign policy became tools for imposing a narrow binary perspective on political doctrines, many of which resulted in violence, death and untold trauma. The US extended both direct and indirect forms of support to regimes considered critical in stopping the advance or inﬂuence of Communism, particularly after the fall of South Vietnam in 1975. In practice, these interventions also involved aiding or assisting regional governments in order to neutralise the inﬂuence of the political left, even if it meant disregarding the will of the popular electorate. 7
Key political events were often read in relation to these patterns of support. The imposition of martial law in the Philippines, and the military actions against students at Thammasat University in Thailand in 1973 and 1976, as well as actions undertaken in Indonesia in 1978, galvanized a range of popular struggles that included the formation or consolidation of artists’ groups afﬁliated with the political left. Inspired by leftist politics and anti-Americanism, student protest groups were widespread, especially in the Philippines and Thailand. In the latter, these protests emerged through a form of criticism articulated through Surrealism and at times powerfully combined with images of religious signiﬁcance. The works of Somchai Hatthakitkoson and Thammasak Booncherd directly refer to what they regarded as the imperialist presence of the United States in Thailand. Somchai’s The Goddess Kali of the 20th Century (1972) was conceived as a metaphor of public indignation directed towards the prostitution of Thai women to US soldiers.
Attempts to deﬁne art according to broader ethical and religious constructs often involved incorporating a range of iconographic signs, then repurposing them in order to allude to contemporary concerns. Buddhism, for example, was denoted through images of the Buddha or through decorative motifs associated with the practice of Buddhism. Such tactics were put into practice by groups such as the Dharma Group, led by Pratuang Emjaroen. Pratuang undertook a series of paintings addressing the violent suppression of pro-democracy student protests in 1973 and 1976. 8
In Red Morning Glories and Rotten Riﬂes (1976), the head of the Buddha has been pierced, stained with blood and placed amidst alandscape of riﬂe butts and muzzles. Pratuang describes his intent thus: [they] symbolise the feelings of confusion and disbelief at the sight of such horriﬁc scenes. There are crying faces and a sky with heavy black storm clouds. Tears stream endlessly down the face of the Buddha, a symbol of the Thai people under threat. 9
Red Morning Glories and Rotten Riﬂes was shown in the third exhibition of the Dharma Group at the Bhirasri Institute of Modern Art, which opened on 5 October 1976. Coincidentally enough, a student protest against Thai military rule was violently quashed by the state the day after the show’s opening, a grisly echo of a similar confrontation that took place in 1973. The exhibition was closed soon after.
The recourse to religion and tradition may also be seen in Malaysia following the race riots of 13 May 1969. In the aftermath of the political and cultural anxieties arising from the riots, the National Cultural Congress convened in Kuala Lumpur from 16 to 20 August 1971. There, the proposal that art be mobilised to serve economic and social objectives rather than the individual was made. It was a controversial proposal, provoking numerous responses that recalled the 1969 riots, including Redza Piyadasa’s May 13th, 1969, which in his words harboured an intimation of a certain sense of nation. 10
A more direct response to the emerging cultural policy aimed at healing the rifts of a multi-ethnic Malaysia appeared some years later. In the years immediately following 1969, Piyadasa worked on various projects that may be described in relation to their afﬁnities to conceptualism and situational practices. In 1974, he, with Sulaiman Esa, authored Towards a Mystical Reality. Although it need not be seen as a direct attempt to critique state views of culture, the manifesto proposes an alternative aesthetic that enables new ways of producing and apprehending art outside Western-centric rationalist positions. The manifesto is noteworthy for proposing an artistic ideology based on cultural and philosophical traditions in Asia; in anticipation of realising this ideology, the authors aimed to ‘sow the seeds for a thinking process which might someday liberate Malaysian artists from their dependence on western inﬂuence’.11 For example, the artists reiterated their quest to redeﬁne parameters by realigning them to borrowings from Asian philosophical notions that enable Asian art production to converse with international concerns; not through a style or formal criteria but an attitude that is mystical and can be unpacked to support new art concepts and productions. By the late 1970s, a strong interest in the Malay culture and Islamic consciousness had emerged in Malaysia. As a Muslim convert of Sri Lankan descent, the 1970s was also a period of introspection for Piyadasa. He began to reﬂect on the vexing question of cultural and national identities in his works, one that had been conditioned by the complexities of colonisation, migration and ethno-nationalism. Piyadasa used archival portrait photography as a basis of his investigations, re-rendering them in ambiguous terms with motifs and colours to engage the viewers’ attention in rethinking the binarist bumiputra (indigenous)/nonbumiputra divide that surfaced in post-1969 Malaysia. 12
During the late 1970s, Sulaiman Esa was drawn to synthesising a conﬂation of ethno-nationalistic modernity with individual expression. He produced a seminal series of prints entitled Waiting for Godot, based on Samuel Beckett’s famous existential play. The series of photoetchings explored a deep personal dilemma regarding the question of artistic purpose and faith, with the prints juxtaposing two contrasting markers of aesthetic and philosophical values through images of the nude and the arabesque. The series foreshadowed the artist’s move towards a Malay-Islamic orientation which became a dominant trend in Malaysian art during the 1980s, coinciding with the rapid rise of pan-Islamism in Southeast Asia. The politicisation of artistic practices may also be located in artistic developments linked to nationalist and anti-colonial struggles of earlier decades. Although the Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru (New Art Movement) emerged in Indonesia under the relative calm of the early phases of Suharto’s New Order, the increasing social tensions and militarism of the late 1970s prompted artists like Dede Eri Supria and F X Harsono to address critical issues such as economic exploitation, global capitalism and social suppression. The group’s manifesto ‘Lines of Attack of the Indonesian New Art Movement’ proposed a rejection of ‘the concept of art that is universal’, insisting instead on a recognition of cultural and historical contexts and social concerns. 13
This critique against increasingly lyrical, mannerist and formal tendencies is paralleled elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Yet these aesthetic positions and notions of criticality in favour of communitarian perspectives may be located within a trajectory of critical positions deﬁned by earlier groups such as the nationalist Persagi (Persatuan Ahli Gambar Indonesia, founded by S Sudjojono in 1938) and LEKRA, the Communist party’s cultural arm, defunct by 1965, both of which were signiﬁcant for their articulations of the rakyat (the people) and its realities.
The artistic movements described above may be seen as a collective critique against the formality, un-reﬂexiveness and repetitiveness of what was called ‘international abstraction’ and ‘provincial lyricism’ which had dominated art-making. While theoretical positions concerning the function and independence of artistic practices tended to differ, they also shared an interest in addressing the conditions of art-making, such as the reception and development of Euro-American models from a postcolonial perspective, as well as the need to challenge the values upheld by institutions and the art market. This helped introduce new forms of practice, in terms of both medium (installation and performance) and content (the explicit invocation of political, gender, religious and environmental issues). Since the late 1970s, the performances and installations of Singaporean artist Tang Da Wu have consistently addressed the profound impact of urbanisation evidenced through the destruction of nature and the trafﬁcking and consumption of wildlife in Asia. Elsewhere, the political activism and protest art seen through seni rupa di kaki lima (street art) incorporated strategies of performance and happenings. As such, the re-emergence and preoccupation with the ‘ﬁgure’, associated with the radical left, need not be seen as mere counterpoints to more conceptual practices. This complexity was highlighted by Patrick Flores in 1998:
The agenda of Philippine art history and criticism through the years has been caught in the vise of antinomies: craft and art, indigenous and colonial, conservative and modern, social realist and conceptual, form and content. While these oppositions may attempt to dramatize discrepancies among competing modes of knowing art and putting it into practice, they cannot even begin to discuss the complexity of the conﬂict, the possibility of encounters, and the art world’s overlapping – because combined and uneven – modes of production. 14
The manifesto of the Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru ﬁts within the agenda of art history and criticism as deﬁned in relation to a broader postcolonial history and culture whereby the new can be made meaningful, detached as it is from the imperatives of Euro-American theories and histories:
To [inspire] the growth of ‘Indonesian’ art by privileging research into the new Indonesian art history, that has its roots in the art practices of Raden Saleh. To examine ways of periodising such history, to study critically its evolvement, to consider its future developments. To acknowledge that in the new Indonesian art history, there are contexts that are unique, so much so that these may not be referenced in ‘imported books’, useful in contextualising Indonesian art, making it conducive for further development.
To aspire to artistic growth that is referenced in the writings and theories of Indonesians art critics, historians and thinkers. To reject totally the perception that Indonesian art is an index to world art, a claim that art is universal, that places Indonesian art contingent to international discourse. 15
Here we may return to the impact of the race riots of 13 May 1969 (the ‘May 13 Incident’) in Malaysia as a foundational point in the development of Malaysian art in the 1970s and 1980s. For many, the incident was signiﬁcant in revealing the limitations of modernism vis-a` -vis the cultural articulation of nation and community. Some declared the need to emphasise communitarian interests that would express a national identity and its values, interests that might correspond with the Rukun Negara (National Principals), a set of national values introduced by the government in 1971 as a response to the May 13 Incident. For T K Sabapathy:
. . . overtly and covertly, events of May 1969 and the Cultural Congress (1971) began to shape thinking and practice among artists; they were far too shattering and fundamental to be ignored. Throughout the 1970s, artists began the difﬁcult, painful process of rethinking their positions, and recasting their perceptions of culture, language, race, state/nation and identity. . . the stakes were too important and consequential not to be involved. 16
Artists sought to engage with this search by oscillating between various dogmatic and critical perspectives. Those associated with Mystical Reality and conceptual approaches tried to explore the limitations of modernism within the local milieu while also engaging with what they perceived as the international. Their works in the early 1970s investigated the assumptions of nation and community, making direct and oblique references to the events of 1969 and the National Cultural Congress of 1971 that had shaped the cultural debates during the period, placing special emphasis on examining and reﬂecting tensions and contradictions between individualism and communitarian interests. The May 13 Incident shattered the positivist complacency of post-independence, bringing to light the problematic of cultural decolonisation and its role in positioning the contemporary. Kaisahan’s manifesto aptly preﬁgures these vexing questions:
For us, therefore, the question ‘for whom is art?’ is a crucial and signiﬁcant one. And our experiences lead us to the answer that art is for the masses. It must not exist simply for the pleasures of the few who can afford it. It must not degenerate into the pastime of a few cultists.
We are aware of the contradictions that confront us in committing ourselves to this task. At present, under the conditions of our times, the audience who will view our works will mostly be the intellectuals, students, professionals and others who go to the galleries. But we wish to gradually transform our art so that it has a form understandable to the masses and a content that is relevant to their life. At present, it is inevitable that our art is sometimes commercialized. But we should use this as a means and not as an end for our artistic expressions. 17
As sketched above, these events crucially deﬁne perspectives of nation, community and self, expressed in a range of feverish, even manic, struggles for identiﬁcation and resistance often complicated by the production of cultural identiﬁers in sync with the project of nation-building that so preoccupied governments throughout Southeast Asia. The economic and social transformations that took place in the 1970s, moreover, necessarily inﬂected cultural discourse by compelling artists to reﬂect on a broad spectrum of social conditions. Such transformations also demanded that artists turn inward to focus on the condition known as the self so as to open up the potential of art as practice.
1. Cid Reyes, Conversations on Philippine Art, Cultural Center of the Philippines, Manila, 1980, p 149
2. Purita Kalaw-Ledesma and Amadis Ma Guerrero, The Struggle for Philippine Art, Purita Kalaw-Ledesma, Manila, 1974, p 67
3. Ibid, p 68
4. Ibid, p 71
5. Syed Ahmad Jamal, Contemporary Malaysian Art, National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, 1988, unpaginated
6. Benigno Aquino Jr, ‘A Pantheon for Imelda’, in A Garrison State in the Make and Other Speeches, Benigno S Aquino Jr Foundation, Manila, 1985, unpaginated
7. The Lon Nol government came to power in Cambodia through a coup d’e´ tat against Prince Sihanouk, bringing the country into an escalated civil war that ended in a victory for the Khmer Rouge in 1975. Suharto’s New Order, introduced in 1966 after the bloody purging of the Parti Komunis Indonesia (PKI), which led to an estimated one million deaths, was characterised by the dominance of the military across the economic and political spheres which only ended in the late 1990s. In Thailand, a brief experiment with democracy in 1969 gave way to the return of a military government in 1971, thus foreshadowing the violent suppression of student movements in 1973 and 1976. In the Philippines, President Marcos, sensing an electoral defeat, introduced martial law in 1972, hence precipitating a populist movement for the reconstitution of the democratic process which later culminated in the advent of People’s Power in 1986.
8. Pro-democracy student protests at Thammasat University in 1973 resulted in a bloody confrontation with the Thai military, an incident later commemorated as the ’14 November Uprising’. The ensuing events eventually led to a review of the Thai constitution for the reinstatement of civilian rule. However, the military reassumed power in 1976.
9. Sodchuen Chaiprasathna and Jean Marcel, The Inﬂuence of European Surrealism in Thailand, R Michael Crabtree, trans, Thailand Research Fund, Bangkok, 2005, p 36
10. See T K Sabapathy, Piyadasa: An Overview, 1962–2000, National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, 2001
11. Redza Piyadasa and Sulaiman Esa, Towards a Mystical Reality, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, Kuala Lumpur, 1974, pp 4– 5
12. See Sabapathy, op cit
13. The full manifesto is published in Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru Indonesia, Jim Supangkat, ed, Penerbit PT Gramedia, Jakarta, 1979, p xix. Also see Telah Terbit (Out Now): Southeast Asian Contemporary Art Practices During the 1960s to 1980s, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore, 2007, pp 50–51.
14. Patrick Flores, ‘Missing Link, Burned Bridges: The Art of the 70s’, Pananaw 2, National Commission for Culture and the Arts, Manila, 1998, p 53
15. Telah Terbit (Out Now), op cit, pp 50–51
16. T K Sabapathy, ‘Vision and Idea Relooking Modern Malaysian Art’, Merdeka Makes Art, or Does It?, National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, 1994, p 71
17. Alice Guillermo, Protest/Revolutionary Art in the Philippines 1970–1990, University of the Philippines, Manila, 2001, p 24
Secluded in the hushed, verdant, bug-colonized environs of Fort Canning is the ASEAN Sculpture Garden.
The tiny park, which houses six outdoor works by artists from various SE Asian nations, commemorates a little-remembered slice of regional art history: the ASEAN Sculpture Symposium. It was convened by ASEAN COCI, the organization’s Committee on Culture and Information, in 1981, with the first ever conference taking place that year in Singapore:
ASEAN Sculpture Symposium. With the aim of promoting a sense of community among sculptors of member countries whose works of art will be visible symbols of regional cooperation, COCI held its first symposium in Singapore from March 27 to May 10, 1981. Five distinguished sculptors from the member countries worked under one roof where they discussed, shared and learned from one another to produce a group of five magnificent five-meter tall sculptures displayed at Singapore’s Fort Canning Park. The Indonesian sculptor contributed a copper plate sculpture called “Unity”; Malaysia, a fibreglass work called “Taning Sari” [sic]; the Philippines, a reinforced concrete cast of an unfinished boat called “Fredesvinda”; Thailand, steel plates combination called “Concentration” and Singapore, a rising balance of circular and cylindrical shapes called “Balance”. The entire symposium has been documented on film by the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation.
(Quote from this page.)
I haven’t seen the SBC docu, nor is it available on Youtube the last time I checked. (<lol> Talk about retro power: I haven’t heard the name SBC since .. well, the days when Duncan Watt used to read the news. Anyone remember him?) In any case, the ASEAN Sculpture Symposium lasted six summits, with the last conference taking place in 1989 at the CCP in Manila. The Singapore sculptures were unveiled the year after the Fort Canning symposium – a sixth piece, Together, by Bruneian artist Osman Bin Mohammad, was added to the flock after the Sultanate’s full independence and subsequent ASEAN membership.
Here’s the question, though: what happened to the Taming Sari sculpture (below), which was Malaysia’s original contribution to the project ? I haven’t been able to discover much about it online — not even the name of the artist.* It seems to have been replaced with the current work, Augury (below), by Anthony Lau, in 1988, at the same time that Osman’s piece was introduced.
* Update: Never mind that. The artist in question is Ariffin Mohammed Ismail. See “Asean Sculptors to Display Their Works”, The Straits Times, 2 Apr 1981 (archived here).
Another one for the history detectives.
Not me, though. <lol> I’m done ferreting around.
The other works in the ASEAN Sculpture Garden: